The constant negative news cycle paired with the reality of the pandemic has taken a toll on our collective mental health. Although vaccines are finally being distributed, we still have a long way to go before fully realizing the effects that the coronavirus has had on our society.

The stresses caused by COVID-19 have also seeped into our work lives. Mental health has been a long-discussed topic in the business community but has recently gained increased attention. Issues such as depression and anxiety have been on the rise, but employers’ willingness to address their team’s mental health has not necessarily kept up.

According to new research released by Clever, 87% of U.S. employees say their job affects their mental health and 41% feel burnt out, yet only 17% say their company actually prioritizes mental health. Mental health should be a priority for employers, though, seeing as general job stress costs U.S. companies an estimated $300 billion per year.

The pandemic has certainly exacerbated these issues, but employers can strive to create a work environment that is accommodating and inclusive. From offering flex schedules to modifying your policies, this article will cover how business owners and managers can foster a culture of positive mental health.

Offer flexibility

Remote work has not only changed where we work but also how we work. Employees are not just sitting at their desks from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. as they would in a regular office setting. In between meetings and assignments, they are taking care of their children, running errands, making lunch, and completing other household tasks. Some might be signing on earlier or working later as the rhythms of their days have changed. All of this is to be expected, as work lives and personal lives are now blurred.

Being understanding of these changes can help you build better relationships with your team and can even boost productivity. As businesses start to reopen their doors, people will need to get used to readjusting their schedules again, so offer flexibility moving forward, too.

Encourage employees to use their PTO days

Working from home has blurred the lines between career and personal life, and the pandemic has largely halted travel and going out. As a result, many have been disincentivized from using their PTO days. According to Clever’s research, only 14% of workers used all their vacation days in 2020, despite evidence showing that people desperately needed to take time off.

Encouraging your employees to actually use their PTO days — even if it’s just to watch Netflix or catch up on errands — can reassure them that their job is secure and compassionate. Taking just a day or two to disconnect and mentally recharge can do wonders for someone’s mood and productivity.

Communicate about mental health resources

Many businesses have employee assistance programs (EAPs), mental health care, wellness programs, or some combination thereof. Due to lack of knowledge or fear of being stigmatized, however, employees do not always use these resources.

Openly communicate about the mental health programs you offer to normalize their use. You can also survey your employees to see what resources they like, which ones they don’t use, and which ones they didn’t realize you had.

Foster a positive company culture

Companies often claim to have a “positive culture,” but their employees might say otherwise. Do an honest assessment of your staff and their behavior to see whether your teams are truly compassionate. Some indicators of a negative work environment include:

  • Managers and employees consistently working after hours or on their lunch breaks
  • Constant gossip amongst employees and managers
  • Lack of communication and understanding between managers and direct reports
  • Decreasing levels of productivity
  • Behavior not matching your company’s values (or not having company values at all)
  • High turnover rates

Luckily, all of these things can be improved with a little effort and empathy. Just be open about your weak spots, accept advice on how to fix them, and implement measures that promote positivity.

Check in with your colleagues

When is the last time you asked your colleagues how they’re feeling and genuinely meant it? Intentionally checking in with your direct reports and offering an ear to those who need it will build trust within your team.

These personal check-ins should not be tied back to work and should not be used to overtly pry into your employees’ lives. They should be meant as compassionate exchanges where you truly listen to your colleagues and vice versa.

Change your review process

Performance reviews should be seen as opportunities for learning and constructive feedback, not a stressful experience. Reviews that measure an individual solely based on strict targets or numerical rankings can be anxiety-inducing.

In addition to offering observations about their performance, make sure to also acknowledge an employee’s emotional intelligence and needs as well. The way you deliver feedback could also have an impact on your employees’ mental health.

Finally, reviews should be a two-way street. Make sure your direct reports feel comfortable to offer feedback on their experiences with their colleagues, managers, and the company as a whole. This could lead to greater findings about how to improve the overall mental health of your team.

Reassess how you measure success

Although companies typically look to their profitability to measure their performance, employee satisfaction is another huge indicator of whether a business is successful. Change your outlook on success to encompass your team members’ happiness as well, and you will quickly see how your approach to management evolves.

How you measure your individual employees’ success should also evolve. Now that many people are working remotely, managers cannot always ‘see’ how productive their staff is being. Instead of micromanaging from afar, set clear expectations to help your team stay on track and find place value in the quality versus quantity of work they are producing.

Check your own actions

If you are a business owner, CEO, or someone in a position of power at your company, understand that you are a role model for the rest of your staff. As a leader, employees and managers will look to you to model their actions. This can be good or bad, depending on your personal circumstances.

If you are quick to pass judgment, micromanage junior staff or snap at your colleagues, then you are promoting a culture of negativity in your business whether you realize it or not. Being an empathetic leader will not only help you retain top performers but will help you understand your employees on a deeper level.

There is no cure-all to mental health issues, but employers can strive to be more empathetic and listen to their staff’s needs. It’s true that the pandemic has completely upended our routines, but it has also given us the opportunity to reassess what was and wasn’t working before the quarantine. Only businesses that take steps to make improvements to their work culture moving forward will succeed in a post-pandemic world.